As I mentioned a few posts back, I’m working through a particular Bible-reading programme, the ‘Bible in 90 Days’. Yeah, it’s a challenge! I’m probably a week behind where I’m supposed to be, but I’m still getting through large chunks at a time. It’s nice.
Just a few days ago I finished the Pentateuch, those first 5 books of the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. To say the least, we don’t normally run to this territory for much devotional reading, at least outside Genesis.
But let’s also be honest – This portion of Scripture is very hard to come by, to understand, both in how it played out then and how it is to play out today.
There are plenty of methods of how to approach it. And I’m not saying I have the market on this. But what I think we need to firstly confess is that it isn’t so black and white. It isn’t as easy as we would like it to be or sometimes communicate that it is.
Still, we can make very reasonable conclusions about the text, for then and now.
What I find baffling, at times, is how we are selective in our direct Scripture application. Some would call it the ‘buffet style’ – pick a little here, pick a little there. Again, quite selective in what is worth obeying today and what is not.
For instance, why would we run to portions of the Pentateuch that speak of not having tattoos (i.e., Lev 19:28) and emphasise them as still needing to be upheld, but then forget (or not even realise) that the same law commands us not to wear mixed clothing (see just a few verses earlier in Lev 19:19, or also Deut 22:11)?
It is very easy to do this, at least to serve the purposes of what we are trying to accomplish.
Now, I know that many a Christians are fine with tattoos, as well as with wearing two kinds of clothing material. In an ancient near eastern context, with tattoos (and cutting of body, as the text also mentions this), I believe such a practice was taken up in connection with the pagan deities. Hence, the command then not to apply such marks to the body. And, though the clothing focus might not be as easily discernable, we could probably guesstimate it was of the same nature. Israel, God’s covenant people, was being called out, to be separate. And in that context, body marks and clothing pointed to such. These were probably quite identifiable amongst ancient cultures as to where your allegiance lie.
But we still appreciate our selective reading. There is just something about tattoos that sounds much more ‘ungodly’ than wearing mixed clothing.
Maybe its simply osmosis of a western evangelical culture that we come from that helps us conclude tattoos are not acceptable. I mean, really. What is a tattoo ultimately? What is mixed clothing? What is pork? And what is cooking a young goat in it’s mother’s milk (Ex 23:19; etc)?
But as to our hermeneutics, that is, understanding Scripture and then moving on to apply it to our lives, let me suggest some things:
1) Let’s start by understanding the ancient passage in its ancient context.
This works well for the Old Testament, but can also be applicable for the New Testament. What really is going on with mixed clothing and cooking young goats? What really is going on in Rome and that all-important letter to the church? What really is going on as to Paul’s statement about women being silent in Ephesus (1 Tim 2)? Or even more, the enigmatic, and oft-skipped over verse about women being saved through childbirth?
We have to start by a) putting on an ancient near eastern lens as best we can to understand the Old Testament. They were not asking the same questions we are. They were not walking through the same situations as we were. They had a different paradigm, a different worldview. So we look to apply this ancient lens as best we can, at least knowing we are quite a few centuries (and millennia) removed and, thus, things aren’t as black and white as we first thought.
Then we b) put on first century, Jewish lens to understand the New Testament. Again, as best we can. I guarantee you that they had a worldview and an interpretive grid for Scripture quite different than the normal, modern evangelical of today. And all of this is ok. We just have to, first, recognise where they were at.
2) We consider how to apply the text within the new covenant.
Then we move in to asking questions of what does this mean in our context. I am not saying Scripture has to be totally re-written to make it applicable to our lives. But Scripture is a lot less abstract and spiritually ethereal than we might imagine. It actually came forth in a real context of a particular time and period. So we can take up the great words of Paul’s prayer in Eph 3:14-21. But I’m thinking this was specifically linking in with Paul’s argument of how the Gentiles have been included in God’s covenant people and Paul’s direct apostolic ministry to this church (see Eph 2 & 3). Maybe we start there.
Therefore, when reading about mixed clothing in Leviticus and thinking about it within a that ancient context, our next step might be to move to how the New Testament talks about the great clothing we are to wear. Well, one could get wrapped up in what we find in 1 Tim 2 about women’s clothing (though it is odd that many who argue from 1 Tim 2 that women cannot be in leadership also forget the detailed instruction of what women are to wear), but the bigger picture is that we’ve been given quite special clothing – clothing ourselves with Christ and his characteristics (Rom 13:14 and Col 3:12).
The story has shifted. The emphasis has changed.
And with tattoos?
Well, they are not inherently ungodly. Just as the internet is not. Both could be utilised for terrible things. But I suppose tattoos and internet, and wearing clothing and cooking goat meat (and Africans love their goat meat!), could all be done to the glory of God. Think 1 Cor 10:31; 1 Tim 4:4. And one might even eat meat that’s been sacrificed to an idol without it bearing down on her conscience, since that idol is nothing anyways (1 Cor 8:4).
3) At times, we might not have a verse to quote that helps us apply a text.
This is important. Most evangelicals find comfort in supporting every theological thought by at least one verse, if not two. It’s very noble. I would lean this way as well.
But real life, real engagement with real Scripture, tells us we are not always able to. We hold Scripture as a great interpretive tool for applying the Bible itself. And there are principles which can be addressed at times. But there are what we call ‘grey’ areas. Areas where things are not crystal clear. Scripture does not answer every question.
Thankfully it doesn’t stop with Scripture. We have the living Spirit of God, the living body of Christ to which we are closely connected, the church historic, our spouse, reasonable reflection upon a question, etc.
Is it 100% perfect in answering a question that might arise? Nope. It never has been and never will this side of the consummation of God’s purposes. But we can reasonably, confidently, approach these issues with the wisdom of God, utilising all the resources God has gifted us with. And I think God meant it this way in the journey of faith, since this is actually how our faith is played out. Let’s celebrate it rather than fear it or teach otherwise.
I think these 3 points will help us engage healthily with Scripture as we yearn to both understand God’s revelation within a former day and walk out his purposes today.